Rights of a Traditional Forest Dweller – A Socio-Legal Study

Forest Dweller
Image Credits – Matt Carlson

Forest dweller is much more than an identity, it is a way of life, and a tradition. They constitute a huge chunk of the Indian population yet are an invisible and often neglected part of society. India has the largest population of tribes in the world comprising about 8% of its population mostly present in the central part of the country according to the 1991 census. The purpose of forests and the lives of the dwellers changed significantly with the coming of the British along with their exploitative practices. There was rampant misuse of forest resources by the colonial powers to swell their treasuries at the cost of denying basic human rights to the forest dweller.

The British introduced laws that alienated the locals from their own land and the forest dwellers were considered second-class citizens in what was, till yesterday, their home. Surprisingly, their conditions did not substantially improve post-independence with the presence of internal colonialism and the uneven development that followed. These areas were further exploited for their rich mineral resources and were subjected to unequal development. Before we take a deeper look into this issue, it becomes very relevant to understand that the majority of the forest dwellers are Scheduled Tribes and this makes them more vulnerable.

The tribals, traditionally, were forest dwellers and settled in resource-rich hotspots to sustain themselves. Even after modernization and industrialization these groups continued living in the forests and played a crucial role in maintaining the balance in the ecosystem. It becomes imperative that we implement inclusive development with a focus on the vulnerable and traditional groups

Legal Provisions for Forest Dweller (s)

Forest Dweller
Image Credits – Folio Illustration Agency

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dweller (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was passed by the Parliament in 2006 as a means to restore the injustices done to the forest dwellers and was mainly based on three Acts – Wildlife Protection Act (1972), National Forest Policy 1988 and The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Schedule Areas) Act 1996 (PESA). It was a step towards acknowledging the loss suffered because of their constitutional rights being violated and the punitive measures imposed by the British over the years.

One of the salient features of the act is that it tries to democratize the tribal identity by removing excessive governmental control. The Act seeks to act as an extension to the mandate under the Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India that seeks to protect the ingenious communities. It also envisages encouraging local self-governance at the level of the inhabitants. The Act guarantees rights for forest dwellers within different categories. Firstly, for the usage of forest resources – Section 3(1) (c) guarantees the forest dwellers the right to use minor traditionally obtained forest resources like tendu or herbs.

Timber was not included in this list since it was exempted from large-scale deforestation. Also, Section 3 contains the list of sites the forest residents can use, for example, grazing areas and water bodies. Additionally, this Act has special provisions for traditionally nomadic groups who do not practice a fixed agriculture system. Secondly, for the protection and conservation of forest resources- One of the major changes was brought about with Section 5 of the Act, which gave the forest dwellers the privileges to protect the area.

Earlier, the officials of the forest department had a legal obligation to safeguard forests. Thirdly, they were also granted land rights- A minimum of four hectares of land could be sought under Sec 3 (1) (a) even if the documentation is not available, provided the land has been harvested by them for their livelihood. Furthermore, if the estate of the plaintiff has been illegally taken by the Forest Department they can claim such rights by presenting a government lease under Sec 3 (1) (f) and 3 (1) (g). Section 4 (4) also protects the land to prevent it from being sold or transferred to anybody other than their heirs.

The Act also explains what it categorizes as a forest dweller. There are two important stages for the determination of the definition. The first stage involves conditions that are supposed to be satisfied to qualify as a forest dweller –

  • The person(s) should be inhabiting forests or forest lands.
  • The person should be bonafide dependent on the forest, its land, and resources for their livelihood. 

The second stage involves proving the following –

  • Section 2 (o) of the Act stipulates that the aforementioned conditions of stage 1 need to be true for seventy-five years, a period of which will deem a person as an Other Traditional Forest Dweller. 
  • Section 2 (c) of the Act provides that the person is a member of the Scheduled Tribe.
  • Section 4 (1) of the Act provides that the person is a resident of an area where they are scheduled. In the latter case, the person is deemed to be a Forest Dwelling Scheduled Tribe. These sections make it very clear as to whom these rights are for and who can be called a forest dweller in order for the rights to be guaranteed to them.

Social Challenges for Forest Dweller (s)

Forest Dweller
Image Credits – Scroll

This Act was not without its share of opposition and criticism. Having the provisions on paper is one thing and the effective implementation of them is another. This is primarily because the Act is not entirely compliant with the law and illegal encroachments have happened and the claims have been unfairly rejected. The absence of these traditional forest dwellers as a major makes it easier for the government to not take their grievances into account and work on them.

Another very crucial factor is the lack of awareness among the forest dwellers and the local level officials who are supposed to protect the claims of these aggrieved parties. More often than not, they themselves are in the dark about the rights they are entitled to and the remedies to seek. There has been a severe dilution of certain sections of the Act to favor individuals and their interests rather than community rights. 

There is a clear lack of intent and cooperation on the part of the bureaucracy to transfer authority to the forest dwellers. They fear losing control of forests and in turn their access to exploit resources. There is still a lack of official and credible data available about the forest dwellers and resources which is a major impediment. This led to a lot of illegal encroachments and seizure of forest lands by the administration which can be easily kept in the dark. There is also a great degree of complacency in the administration. 

In the Wildlife First vs Ministry of Forest and Environment, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 was reviewed by the Supreme Court for its constitutionality. In 2008 Wildlife First, the Wildlife Trust of India, and other environmentalists filed a petition in the Supreme Court for examining the Constitutionality of the above-mentioned Act. They claimed that the Act resulted in large-scale deforestation and encroachment of forest areas.

The government failed to defend the legitimacy of the Act and the SC ordered forced evictions of approximately 1,000,000 tribal and forest dwellers. This points to the lack of clarity with regard to the act and the grey area that exists. This makes it too difficult for the already vulnerable group to seek compensation and approach the authorities with their grievances. 

Way Ahead

We as civil society have a major part to play in ensuring that the rights and provisions granted to them on paper are being implemented on the ground. It is time we become more conscious of how we perceive these indigenous groups; rather than seeing them as a hindrance to national development, they must be seen as an integral part of the ecosystem. The forest dwellers are in a disadvantaged position when it comes to negotiating with the government which is more often than not unheard of.

We must make conscious efforts to ensure the provisions laid down in various legislations are enforced effectively and influence the government to provide further schemes and programs for their upliftment. It is one thing to have comprehensive and promising laws on paper and yet another to ensure timely and effective implementation. In a time where industrialization and urbanization are the buzzwords, it becomes even more important to strengthen the provisions and redressal mechanisms provided to the marginalized and vulnerable groups.

It is a slippery path that we are walking on but it becomes very necessary to safeguard their traditions and livelihood while also making sure they are being given equal benefits of the capitalist endeavors. It is time we redefine and reimagine the concept of forest dwellers and take steps to bring them at par with the mainstream society yet preserve their unique identity. The road ahead is long and arduous but the destination is worth the fight.